Due to the continuing Covid-19 restrictions, the General Assembly once again took place by electronic means on the Zoom platform, being unable to be constituted physically in its usual ‘home’ at Liberton Kirk, Edinburgh. Around 60 commissioners joined, and the proceedings were also made available by live streaming, to allow interested members of the public to observe.
On the evening of Monday 24th May, Retiring Moderator, Rev. William Macleod (Knightswood), preached an appropriate sermon from John 17:11, in which he emphasised the necessity for unity within the visible church of God, even beyond denominational bounds; a unity based on brotherly love. It was the desire of Christ in His High Priestly prayer, that His church on earth would reflect the love and unity present within the eternal Godhead.
Thereafter Rev. Murdo A.N. Macleod (Snizort) was elected Moderator of the General Assembly and took the chair. One of the first items of business he conducted was to oversee the appointment of a new Principal Clerk to succeed the late Rev. John MacLeod (Tarbat), who served in the post with distinction since 2000 and whose sudden passing in December 2020 necessitated this appointment. The Moderator paid warm tribute to the sterling work of Mr MacLeod. The Assembly proceeded to appoint Rev. Graeme Craig (Ayr) as Principal Clerk.
The following morning, 25th May, Mr Macleod, rather than giving a traditional Moderatorial address, preached a sermon from Psalm 107:31-43. His theme was The Sovereignty of God, in which he focused on two points: 1. The Evidence of God’s Sovereignty; 2. Our Response to God’s Sovereignty. Lifting evidence from the text, the Moderator highlighted that the sixfold response of God’s people to His sovereignty should be to observe it carefully, biblically, penitently, gladly, actively and hopefully. A very appropriate sermon for the times in which we live.
The Loyal and Dutiful Address to Her Majesty the Queen was given, with particular reference made to the sad passing of her husband of 73 years, HRH Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh. It highlighted their union as a positive and enduring example of marriage as a creation ordinance instituted by God, in a world of moral confusion. Her Majesty was prayerfully commended to the God of all comfort in her grief.
The Ecumenical Relations Committee reported positive discussions with the Australian Free Church and the Presbyterian Reformed Church in the USA. These discussions may lead to closer relations or even admission into our own denomination. As a consequence of correspondence received by this Committee, the Assembly appointed a Special Committee to consult closely with Presbyteries regarding the current administrative name of our Church and to report back to next year’s Assembly.
The Finance & Sustentation Committee reported a small operating surplus for the year, due mainly to savings made as a result of Covid-19 restrictions and a substantial one-off legacy. The Lord continues to provide graciously through sustained congregational remittances and recovered Gift Aid, which equates to 21% of all remittances. Despite this, an operating budget deficit of nearly £60,000 was approved to enable the denomination to function next year, mainly to cover minister’s stipends and staff costs. Congregational treasurers were encouraged to submit funds regularly each month to assist with monthly payments of stipends. A small increase to the ministerial stipend of £500, bringing it to the level of £21,000 per annum, was approved by the Assembly.
The Special Committee on Psalmody reported an encouraging fourth print run of the staff Psalter, and contact they had received from a Christian School in England requesting assistance with exclusive psalm-singing, both with the words and the tunes. They encouraged all congregations to make full use of all resources made available by them, in order to maximise their ability to sing joyful praise to God, in both public and family worship.
The Welfare of Youth & Education Committee highlighted a concern regarding the ever-decreasing number of children in Sabbath Schools and those participating in Scripture examinations. It was not possible again this year to present the two prize-winners to the Moderator, but they were confirmed as Susanna Jean MacDonald (Stornoway), Bible Class winner, and Lois Brooks (Duthil-Dores), Grade 2 winner. The Moderator congratulated both these winners and all participants for their endeavours.
The Committee on Publications detailed the challenges of promoting the printed word in the digital age and a concerning trend in falling subscriptions to the Witness/Explorer magazines. A plea was made for every congregation to encourage and promote the reading of Reformed literature, particularly material published by the denomination. Tribute was paid to the retiring editor of The Explorer, Rev. Murdo A.N. Macleod (Snizort), who had occupied the post for eight years. The new editor of The Explorer is Rev. Tom I. Budgen (Kilmuir & Stenscholl).
The Committee on Public Questions, Religion & Morals solemnly reported an ever-increasing number of issues coming within their remit due to the accelerating moral decline in our nation and world. Updates were given on such issues as the Hate Crime Bill, the Abort Abortion Campaign, the Named Person Scheme, and in particular the criminalisation of public worship during Covid-19. The Committee expressed thankfulness to God for the decision of Lord Braid at the recent Judicial Review, that the Scottish Government had indeed overreached their lawful powers in closing churches during the pandemic.
The Legal Advice & Property Committee reported a successful conclusion to the long-running legal dispute with the Bank of Scotland regarding the Kiltearn congregation’s frozen funds. This resulted in a full return of all monies – a wonderful providence of the Lord. Slow progress is being made with securing ‘Prescribed Body’ status, which avoids the current practice of individual ministers requiring to be authorised by the Scottish Government every three years to conduct marriages. Current authorisations expire at the end of 2023, so this matter remains a priority for the Committee.
The Training of the Ministry & Admissions Committee reported that no Scottish students are in the Seminary at this time and issued a passionate plea for young men to prayerfully consider whether they are called to this wonderful office. Two overseas students, Mr Joshua Cochran (USA) and Mr Hugues Pierre (France), are nearing the completion of their studies, and it is hoped they will soon be available for a call to a pastoral charge. The Convener paid tribute to Rev. William Macleod on his retirement as Lecturer in Systematic Theology, having served in the post since 2017. The General Assembly followed thereafter to appoint Rev. Greg MacDonald (Cross) as the new Lecturer in Systematic Theology.
The Committee on Home & Foreign Missions highlighted encouraging developments and church growth in Sri Lanka. Positive reports of development in Spain and France were also received. It was recommended and approved by the Assembly that the mission work in Spain and France be disjoined into two independent charges under the auspices of a new Presbytery, the Presbytery of Navarre and Aragon. The Church is encouraged to remember this fledgling work in its prayers. Under normal circumstances several delegates from varying organisations/denominations would be received and welcomed by the Moderator, but due to Covid-19 restrictions this was not possible. However, the Assembly were pleased to hear from three missionary delegates within our own Church – Rev. Jorge Ruiz Ortiz, Spain, Mr Hugues Pierre, France, and Rev. S.N.V. Partheepan, Sri Lanka – who updated the Assembly on the Lord’s work in these places. The Moderator commended the work of these men for the Lord’s cause to the prayers of the wider Church.
An Overture from the Free Southern Presbytery anent Scripture Versions was the matter which occupied the largest slice of Assembly debating time, exercising the minds of the attending commissioners as the many applicable issues were aired and considered. After several hours of passionate and cogently presented submissions, the Overture was received to the extent that the General Assembly commend the Authorised (King James) Version of the Holy Scriptures for use in the public worship of God.
At around 5pm on Wednesday 26th May, following an online singing of Psalm 122, the Moderator dissolved the 2021 Assembly. The next General Assembly will convene, DV, in Edinburgh on 23rd May 2022 at 6pm.